Water down the gene pool that birthed fiery hip-hop dramas like “8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow” and you’re left with “Filly Brown.” A routine music business cautionary tale, the film shuffles its decks ever so slightly by casting a Latino actress as its lead, but doesn’t do enough to shed the exasperating confines of the star-is-born genre.
Gina Rodriguez breaks a sweat trying to rescue “Filly Brown” from mediocrity. A versatile young talent, she’s asked to keep a lot of plates spinning in this Sundance Film Festival favorite — and somehow avoids blame when most of those dishes fall to the ground and shatter.
“Filly Brown” is a stage name adopted by Majo Tonorio (Rodriguez), a tough but sensitive L.A. street poet who frequents the studios of a popular Internet radio program because the hosts let her spit freestyle rhymes over electronic beats. Filly’s natural talents lure a sleazy music producer whose first order of business is to sex up her act. That, in turn, opens the door to a possible record contract with local music mogul Big Cee (Noel Gugliemi), though Filly is ordered to burn bridges between her friends and family to make that dream a reality.
Filly’s rapid ascension and inevitable decline should have been enough to sustain an inspiring musical fable, particularly with a magnetic personality like Rodriguez leading the charge. The actress rips through spoken-word raps laced with political and ethical messages about and for the Latin American community. Rodriguez convinces us that Filly has a voice that needs to be heard.
Sadly, that voice is drowned out by too much manufactured melodrama. “Filly Brown” writer-director Youssef Delara stifles Rodriguez’s performance with multiple, cliched story lines that distract from the artist’s journey and generate little tension.
Maria (the late Jenni Rivera), Majo’s incarcerated mother, is pushing for a retrial because the police officer who testified against her might have lied. Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips), Majo’s proud but cash-strapped father, can’t hold down his landscaping gig. And Lupe (Chrissie Fit), Majo’s promiscuous younger sister, falls into a harmful relationship with a man who hits women and assaults Majo’s boyfriend, Eddie (Jorge Diaz), with a baseball bat.
Delara shoots “Filly Brown” using washed-out cinematography that gives Southern California’s valley suburbs an arid tint. Like many indie filmmakers, he’s guilty of an overreliance on jiggly hand-held cameras. And the film’s soundtrack lacks a memorable tune that would help keep “Filly” in the audience’s head long after a screening.
That’s not the key missing ingredient, though. Even with the assorted hardships waiting for Majo outside of the studio, “Filly Brown” lacks the urgency that fuelled both “8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow.” Those films did a fantastic job of convincing us music was the only ticket out of a hellish existence for their protagonists. Majo, on the flip side, has supportive friends, a loving (if slightly fractured) family unit and a decent suburban abode to fall back on. I never believed that Filly Brown desperately needed to succeed. As a result, I don’t think the film succeeds, either.
O’Connell is a freelance writer.
R. At Loews Rio Cinemas 18 and Fairfax Corner 14. Contains strong language, some drug use and violence. 100 minutes.